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On the Uses of Myers-Briggs

Apparently, this is the face of an INTJ.

Apparently, this is the face of an INTJ.

I recently did the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (“MBTI”) test and came up INTJ. The indicators are based on where one is situated along a continuum between descriptors of how one relates to the world. There are four indicators, and each features pairs of terms that are meant to encapsulate contrasting ways of interacting with the world: introvert/extrovert, intuiting/sensing, thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging. This therefore makes me Introverted, iNtuiting, Thinking, Judging.

In all it is a fascinating exercise, notwithstanding the critiques and issues that some professionals have with the MBTI scale. I’d recommend it–not to limit or label yourself or others, but rather, to help understand the nature of the paradigms and approaches you use in your perception and interactions with the world around you, and the ways in which those paradigms might be similar or different to those of your colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

It is important to note that for the most part the MBTI does not use its key terms in the same way we use the words in everyday parlance. Though thanks to books like Susan Cain’s Quiet, the idiomatic use of introvert and extrovert in colloquial speech is starting to line up more closely with the MBTI usage (i.e. introverts aren’t shy, they just tend to recharge alone, rather than with people), the other terms are still used differently, sometimes just in nuance, and sometimes in giving rise to altogether discrete definitions.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these differences and they are worth touching on, since may of the pages I’ve found don’t hone in on these, but instead proceed on the assumption that these differences are clear. For me, they weren’t, and it took some reading and delving to develop some sense of the oft-key nuances that differentiate between everyday usage and MBTI usage.

The intuiting/sensing binary for MBTI seems to describe the difference between people who are about the conceptual and those who rely most strongly on direct experience. Intuiting types are, in this usage, about mitigating and moderating the input of their senses with reason, looking at concepts, ideas, principles and theories. They are about fitting those observations into larger patterns that can be interpolated into theories. The “N” types are therefore most comfortable parsing the world in that manner (intuiting) in contrast with the “S” types, who like experiential, direct, sense-based criteria for parsing and interpreting the world (sensing). Indeed, the latter can be more concrete in certain ways, but will also privilege, say, mystical experiences that have come to them via their senses and perceptions, over any rational objections that might insist that such experiences must be illusory because they do not line up with what the individual knows about that larger limitations of science and objective reality. This is in contrast to the colloquial use of “intuition” and “sensing”, where “intuition” ends up being non-rational and “sensing” relates to notions of sensuality.  With MBTI, the intuiting types are therefore those who will use any concrete feedback to try to interpolate trends and formulate theories or generalizations about how the world works. They are also strongly rational. That’s about right for me.

Thinking/Feeling in MBTI is similar to general usage. This one is difficult for me to relate to myself, because this is one where, though I am decidedly on the “thinking” side, it’s not as strongly manifested as my introversion and my intuiting factors–so there is some “feeling” element in there. I would speculate that for someone like me, the thing that tips the scale to thinking rather than feeling is that when I make a decision about a course of action, I need a strong rational, “thinking” underpinning for that decision in order to feel comfortable about it. The whole “gut feeling” thing makes me uneasy, just as impulse purchases give me buyers’ remorse most of the time, and any satisfaction derived from “retail therapy” only comes if I have considered the relevant angles, my need for the item in the context of its usefulness in my life, and assessed which is the best brand of the item at the best value, before making the purchase. Thinking.

The final binary, perceiving/judging is another that people seem to misconstrue. My brother told me, when I asked him about his MBTI, that he figured he was perceiving, because he wasn’t a judgemental person. Again, this misconstrues the MBTI usage. From what I can tell, the perceivers are the ones who are data-gatherers. They pull in data, and assemble it, and can formulate complex theories and models about how it all relates. But those who are strongly on the the perceiver end of the spectrum will often have trouble coming to a decision about a plan or course of action to be taken on the basis of the data and its interrelations. I can identify–this pair is another where I am tipped in favour of judging, but also have a lot of perceiving traits mixed in.

The judging trait, however, does not appear to have anything to do with being judgemental. Rather, the judging type will tend to make decisions. Depending on where they are along the spectrum, and also depending on the interaction between this trait an the other binaries, those decisions will be based on a little, or a significant amount of necessary data. The judging personality will therefore be more able to make strong, decisive moves, but in certain combinations, might stop short of grounding those decisions in data, if they are strongly judging, and that combines with, say, being strongly “feeling” on the T/F binary.

I recently asked a friend of mine who is a psychology professor, whether the MBTI has much respect in academic circles. His comment was something to the effect that while some academics look down on it, in his view it actually does a good job of measuring four of the five significant personality indicators. The fifth significant indicator is neurosis, said he. The MBTI is often the one that is used in companies, because it gives a good general idea of personality types without getting into uncomfortable discussions about neurosis and hangups.

So, armed with that somewhat equivocal, but ultimately positive, endorsement, I began delving into the types and have quickly grown fascinated. I don’t believe that the MBTI is prescriptive, nor infallible. At best, it is descriptive and provides generalized patterns of behaviour clusters arising out of different types of motivators or paradigms/perspectives.

I do think it can be useful to look at the ways in which being disposed to one, versus another, type of indicator informs behaviour. So if I recharge well alone, whereas someone else recharges in company, that will inform each of our behaviours and decisions in key ways. Understanding that this fundamental desire for solitude or company exists in someone, makes certain decisions that are not even consciously articulated easier to understand.

It has been an interesting process, looking at my “type” (which is ultimately self-selected, since the tests involve filling out questionnaire about how one responds in a series of hypothetical situations) and seeing how well it matches up to how I see myself.

Being me, I immediately began reading up on the INTJ type, in search, not just of insight, but of whether or not the descriptions actually reflected my sense of myself.

Given that I’m strongly “intuiting”, my interest in the MBTI, as an abstracted system or interpolated set of patterns, that can be used to get a sense of the clusters of behaviours that define the “types”, hardly seems surprising at all. The usefulness of this system is also striking. If I can understand that I’m making a decision to stay home because that is how I recharge, and this is normal for a portion of the population, then this helps reduce the self-critique at my not wanting to socialize when my extroverted colleague is all ready to go party. It also helps me understand why my colleague, after a long day of networking, is more energized than ever and ready to go to the bar to socialize even more, when all I want to do is go home and recharge.

This goes for the other indicators in the system, and the ways in which they all combine. Understanding the ways in which the different personalities tend to see the world and make decisions about it helps to promote tolerance, but also helps to make me conscious of the kinds of translation that might be necessary, to demonstrate my perspective, or to try to understand the other person’s perspective on any given issue, dispute or project.

All that having been said, I have been a little chagrined to note that in many ways I do fit into the INTJ type. A comparable personality scale refers to this type as the “Mastermind Rational”. My chagrin derives from the fact that many of the cited exemplars of this personality type are apparently the evil villains. As someone who seeks to be ethical and behave in a way that I think is respectful of others and of my larger beliefs, it’s a little irksome that this would be how my personality type maps out. But as a rationalist, I also know that just because a lot of nasty peeps (including, apparently, Moriarty and Walter White) happen to be INTJs doesn’t mean much, since MBTI doesn’t speak to ethics (and on the up side, some of the other, non-villainous fictional characters listed include Gandalf, as well as Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes).

I also have to admit, the descriptions of INTJs are not inaccurate, in many ways, though I would say I tend to be more diplomatic and more concerned about others’ feelings than many INTJs, who apparently often tend to be blunt and tactless.

But still–I am also the person who is addicted to looking at the long term, setting goals and taking time out to strategize about how to achieve those goals. I regularly set time aside–sometimes entire weekends–to do strategic, long-term planning. I also regularly check back in to see how I’m doing relative to those long term plans, and whether the route, or the methodology, needs to be adjusted based on recent developments or changes in my thinking.

It intrigues and helps me to realize, in looking at the other MBTI type descriptions, that not everyone thinks this way, and that, for some of the other types, such an approach might actually be fundamentally counter to how they look at the world. It also helps me relate to colleagues, friends and clients in a more clear-eyed, but compassionate way, and to try to couch my communications in a manner that stands a better chance of being understood by someone with a very different MBTI.


3 comments on “On the Uses of Myers-Briggs

  1. Vic
    July 1, 2014

    I like what you wrote. Your explanation of intuition/sensing helped clear up what has always seemed a bit vague to me (maybe because Jayne and I are both Ns, so there is no obvious contrast there to examine).

    I understand thinking/feeling as being more about how people make decisions (NS are the perceiving functions, and TF are the judging functions). A T tends to make decisions based on what’s logical, whereas an F tends to make decisions based on how other people will react or feel. Mr. Spock is an extreme T, completely logical, yet constantly being surprised by how other people react in a way he didn’t expect.

    I’ve never heard of INTJ as being associated with villains. I would think of it as being associated with people who are intense.

    I have always said that the main use of the MBTI (or any other personality test) is to help understand specific ways that people are different, and how what seems obvious to one makes no sense to another.

    • Susan Deefholts
      July 1, 2014

      Thanks for commenting, Victor! I think that’s right, re T/F and I like the way you differentiate between that and the N/S indicator, with one being about perception, and the other as about decision-making. That makes complete sense.

      I had parsed the T/F difference on that basis (my comfort zone is making decisions that I can rationalize rather than those which “feel” right emotionally), but I wasn’t sure if that was just my own experience of it, because I’m only moderately on the “thinking” side of the continuum (22%) or if there’s a larger pattern, there. I think the villain association is because the INTJ’s tend to be planners and strategists, so characters like Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and Water White often are featured on lists of “fictional INTJs” (and Putin appears to be on the “famous INTJs” compilation). But ultimately, that’s neither here nor there.

      And I completely agree–the MBTI’s are useful for me as a reminder of how differently other people approach ideas, decisions, and life in a way that makes sense to me and helps curb any incipient frustration by reminding me that the differences are inherent and often at the basic level of paradigms for seeing the world, rather than any obtuseness or stubbornness in the other person!

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2014 by in Strategy and tagged .
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